by Martin Odoni
20th November 2021, Vicarage Road
Watford 4-1 Manchester United
(King 28, Saar 44, Pedro 90, Dennis 90+5 – Van de Beek 49)
After a long Saturday night and the small hours of Sunday morning, Ole Gunnar-Solskjaer’s borrowed time as Manchester United coach finally ran out. Solskjaer only signed a new contract in the summer. But after a largely dismal start to the season, the club decided on Sunday 21st of November to fire Solskjaer.
Solskjaer’s dismissal was looking a certainty since the terrible defeat by Liverpool in late-October. More misery followed against Manchester City, in which a 2-0 defeat felt like another five-goal drubbing. Then this weekend produced the worst yet.
On a visit to a Watford team struggling in the relegation mire, United produced their limpest display of the season. Yet again, United conceded first, and Watford were two up at half-time through goals from Joshua King and Ibrahima Sarr, taking advantage of United’s characteristically static defending and loose passing. They could even afford for Sarr to miss an early penalty. United had created scarcely a ghost of an opening throughout the first 45 minutes, out-competed at every turn.
Second half sloppiness
United improved after half-time and got back into contention through a header from the much-under-used Donny van de Beek. For twenty minutes or so, United had the tide. They looked like they could draw level, but more clear opportunities eluded them, as their distribution continued to go astray at exasperating moments.
United once again proved their own greatest enemies, as Harry Maguire was booked twice in seven minutes to be sent off. The second booking in particular made Maguire look a fool, trying in his own defensive third to dribble his way past Tom Cleverley. Maguire let the ball roll away from him, then dived in recklessley and took Cleverley out just as he was about to take the ball into the area.
The ten men from there were powerless and dispirited. Watford managed the game through into injury time, whereupon they added two more strikes, one from Joao Pedro, one from Emmanuel Dennis to give the final score a more realistic tilt.
No one shoud take anything away from Watford, who are improving quickly and impressively under Claudio Ranieri, and the final score was a deserved reward for their greater energy and purpose. However, it must still be stated; this was possibly the most awful performance from Manchester United in their three years under Solskjaer, and yet perfectly consistent with the precipitous slide in their form, and the miserable atmosphere surrounding the club since mid-September. There was a sense even before the final whistle that the next chapter was inevitable – the axe for their beleaguered coach.
By the early evening, the Manchester United board were meeting on an emergency Zoom call to discuss whether they could persist with Solskjaer. It seems the unanimous No was decided quite quickly, and the rest of the call was to thrash out what Solskjaer’s compensation package should be. It is believed to be worth around £7.5 million, so Solskjaer hardly need be given too much sympathy. Malcolm Glazer himself delivered his assent for the package at around 5am.
By 11am on the Sunday morning, in a press conference layered over with somewhat theatrical respect, United confirmed that Solskjaer was leaving by mutual consent (“fired but with dignity”). It was an announcement that surprised precisely nobody.
Michael Carrick has token over duties as interim coach until a permanent successor can be appointed.
Reflecting on Solskjaer’s stewardship
Ole Gunnar-Solskjaer’s limitations as a coach were pretty clear, particularly his inability to get a coherent gameplan together. In too many matches, especially this season, the very talented United squad took the field and looked far less than the considerable sum of its parts. They frankly looked better-organised under Jose Mourinho.
Solskjaer’s time in charge was not all bad news. He did change the dismal, divided atmosphere Mourinho had left behind. He made it fun for the players to express themselves for their club again, at least for a while. He got them to a cup final, and moved them up the Premier League from not far above mid-table to a second-place finish last year.
Nevertheless, it is hard to argue that his ability to develop the team had not hit a kind of plateau. The club invested a lot of money in the likes of van de Beek, only for Solskjaer to show no trust in him, and Jadon Sancho, who never seems to fit in with the other players. They clearly need a coach who knows the art of developing players individually as well as organising them to play as a team. Solskjaer seems okay but underwhelming at either side of the job.
But above all, Exhibit A almost, the Manchester United defence has become a joke. The back four’s positional play is always sloppy. Their minds never seem to be tuned in properly for more than seventy per cent of any game. The tentativeness of their tackling looks schoolboy standard. The tendency of left hand and right hand each not to know what the other is doing, with some trying to press the opponent while others try to keep back in formation, has led to mistakes that have startled the whole Premier League. Solskjaer never seemed able to do anything to correct these inadequacies, despite much of the personnel – Harry Maguire, Arron Wan-Bissaka, Luke Shaw among others – being very talented, and looking very effective when playing international football.
In the end, the emergency Zoom meeting on Saturday night was Solskjaer’s trial. The evidence was pretty conclusive against him, and the verdict was never in doubt. Manchester United will probably feel as an organisation that they got carried away back in early 2019 when the team improved initially under Solskjaer, and the club chose to offer him a permanent contract. It was probably sentiment in large part, due to him scoring a Champions League Final winner as a United player in 1999. His coaching is adequate, but no more than that, and in an era of real ‘powerhouse coaches,’ like Pep Guardiola, Thomas Tuchel and Jurgen Klopp – all at United’s three biggest rival clubs – ‘adequate’ is no longer adequate. If United are to catch up with the likes of Chelsea, City and Liverpool, they need a coach of a similar stature and presence.
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